Pure Genius

Steingraber on fracking and raising kids in a toxic world

Posting in Architecture

More from Sandra Steingraber, the Heinz Award winning biologist who focused her life's work on the links between environmental toxins and human diseases.

In Tuesday's post, environmental health expert Sandra Steingraber talked about her career path and what worries her most about the links between cancer and our environment. In Part 2 of our interview, Steingraber talks about fracking, raising children in a toxic world and what's next.

It's trendy now to buy organic and use more natural products. Does that matter when it comes to cancer or should we focus on larger interventions?

I just published a column on that question. I'm not convinced that when people do small individual things in their household that necessarily ramps them up to do bigger things. In some cases, I think it works the other way. If people think they can create these pods of protection for themselves, they're less likely to become involved in environmental reform. It's the fallacy of believing you can create a nontoxic bubble around you and your family. That being said, if you direct your food dollars toward organic farmers, you're not only lowering your consumption of pesticides. You're also supporting farmers who aren't putting cancer-causing and birth defect-causing chemicals into the environment. Your food dollars become part of the support for an agricultural redesign.

There are big problems that can only be solved on a policy level. The biggest environmental issue right now is fracking. It's the newest form of natural gas extraction that explodes the bedrock under our feet to get bubbles of methane out of the shale. It's going on in so many states. This kind of gas extraction only works if you blanket the area with gas heads. We're talking about industrializing massive areas of the United States, including areas where we grow food and pasture animals. Some of the chemicals used in fracking are linked to cancer and birth defects and asthma. You have multiple routes of exposure. You're creating a situation that is irremediable. Shattered bedrock can't be glued back together. In New York, we have a moratorium. It's about to be lifted. A lot of us are working to make sure it's not. The battle isn't over. I think communities are realizing that individual towns and villages can't regulate fracking. As individual homeowners, you can be forcibly integrated if your neighbors sign on. It's left up to states to govern. If we had a rational energy policy that blazed a trail to get us off fossil fuels and onto renewables, none of us as individuals would have to confront fracking.

That's an issue that can only be dealt with in a meaningful way on a large level. Otherwise, it turns into this absurd situation where we're all urged to compost our waste because if you throw food scraps in the landfill it generates methane. We're supposed to take our buckets of compost to our compost pile while waving at the gas drills blasting methane out of the bedrock? You end up with absurdities like that. We're supposed to car pool to save on our carbon footprint while we have fleets of [trucks] spewing diesel exhaust up and down our rural roads. If we don't have a rational energy policy, these things people do out of the goodness of their hearts become not only trivial. They become almost ironically cruel.

You wrote about your cancer and your hometown, having your first child and now about raising your children in a toxic world. Talk about your latest book.

Raising Elijah is named after my second child, who is now 10. He's named after one of my childhood heroes, an abolitionist named Elijah Lovejoy. He was assassinated in Illinois by a pro-slavery mob in the 1830s for arguing that slavery was a homicidal abomination that needed to end. He was aware that at the time our entire economy was dependent on slave labor. We couldn't be competitive in the world market without it. Nevertheless, he said there was a higher issue. He was considered in his time to be an extremist. Yet his work influenced the young Abraham Lincoln. He had a powerful effect on our nation's thoughts about slave labor. I feel like we're standing at a similar point in human history right now. Our economy is not dependent on slave labor, but it's become ruinously dependent on fossil fuels.

The book is written in my voice as a biologist mother. It talks about the environmental crisis as a crisis of parenting. It makes the argument that our chemical policy and energy policy do not sufficiently protect children's healthy development. It also takes the reader into the ecology of my own household. It goes back and forth between the intimate world of raising young kids -- the laundry cycle, the homework -- and these larger policy issues.

Why are children particularly threatened by toxic chemicals in the environment?

Children are biologically different from adults. Pound-for-pound, children breathe more air, drink more water and eat more food than adults. The ecological world is streaming through them at a faster rate. They also literally occupy a different habitat. They're short. They're closer to the ground and they inhale a lot more dust. The chemical contaminants found in house dust are going to be higher in kids than in adults. They tend to mouth breathe more than adults. They put their hands in their mouth 4.9 times per minute on average.

They're missing a lot of the defense mechanisms adults have. One of them is a functioning blood-brain barrier that stands between our circulatory system and the gray matter of our brains. It does a good job of keeping neurological toxins away from our brains. Infants come into the world with permeable blood-brain barriers. That vulnerability comes at a time when the architecture of the brain is still taking shape. A child's brain continues to remodel itself until age 25, but the most rapid wiring takes place until the third birthday. A tiny exposure to a brain poison early in life can have disproportionate and permanent effects. It can alter the mind of a child.

What's next for you?

Raising Elijah began for me a process of understanding how two twin environmental crises are linked together. My new work will continue with that analysis. Up to now, I've mostly looked at the environmental crisis in terms of involuntary exposures to chemical contaminants. But there is, of course, the climate crisis too.

In Raising Elijah, I begin to reveal the ways these two crises share a common root, which is fossil fuels. If we light fossil fuels on fire, we load up the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases with all the consequences for our oxygen supply. We also can take oil and gas and coal and use them to make things like plastic, fertilizer and pesticides. It's one problem: fossil fuels.

I'm working on a book about fracking, which I see as the most ominous of all the new forms of fossil fuel extraction. I'm interested now in not just using science writing to describe a problem to my readers, but using writing to embolden and inspire people to stop an atrocity before it happens.

Image: Raising Elijah cover

Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure